The trip we were pleasantly surprised to be able to take. What happened was this: Dad was going on a spiritual retreat in Arizona, and asked if I'd like to come with. Of course I said "yes". It was a chance to get out of the Midwest, which I hardly ever get to do, and even better, a chance to get out of the region during Winter. As we boarded Southwestern, we found that we were left sitting on the tarmac for a really long time. Eventually, we were told to go back into the terminal, and were loaded onto another plane, where we were then told that somebody had phoned in a bomb threat.
One tiny little terrorist incident, hardly even worth mentioning, and people made such a big deal about it. It made the 6 o'clock news, people wanted to know if we were scared, and it's like sheesh, guys, it was probably just some high school student with a few quarters, a pay phone and much too much time on his hands. Southwestern couldn't have been nicer about it, and gave everybody who was on that flight a ticket to anywhere Southwestern went, in the contiguous 48 states.
Dad asked me if I had any preferences. For me, it rapidly became a very easy choice. Florida was a tempting thought, especially after the summer Chicago had seen, with a high of 66 degrees during one day in late July, but what I was really longing for were mountains. That knocked Florida right out of the picture: it's one of the few places even flatter than Illinois, and if you've ever been to my home state, you know that's really saying something. But I had really enjoyed our trip to Arizona, during which we visited the two cities one would expect (Phoenix and Tucson), with the expected regrets when we saw pictures of Northern Arizona - regrets that we didn't have the time to swing by there. Of the places we had visited in the United States, the Southwest seemed to easily be the most distinctive.
Aside from the presence of vegetation all around us and a deep blue sky overhead, parts of Arizona actually did seem to resemble Mars, by the way. I was a little skeptical when I heard that comparison in the course of the coverage of some of the NASA probes, but I got to Phoenix, looked at the mountains surrounding that greatly underrated city, and sure enough, the landforms looked markedly similar. We had greatly enjoyed the drive up out of the desert in the Santa Catalina mountains outside of Tucson - and by "up", I literally mean "up", not "north". As one rose, one could see the saguaro cacti give way to grassland, which in turn gave way to deep, green forest; from a hot, dry day at the base of the mountains, we rode up toward a mountain top which was large enough to allow one to sensibly speak of its hilly "interior", which looked like an island floating in a sea of fog. As memorable as the natural sights were, the culture was even more so. This is the one place we've been where Native American culture seems to be something more than a museum piece kept alive for the rare tourist who comes by, and one aspect in particular grabbed by attention. When we we visiting "the White Dove of the Desert" (a mission outside of Tucson), I picked up a book entitled "Indian Pottery of the Southwest", and was immediately intrigued.
The word "primitive" tends to be bandied about very casually when anything Native American is discussed, but there was nothing primitive about what I was seeing. What I was seeing was a frequently sophisticated, creative and distinctive art form, one which was still very much alive judging by the dates on most of the pieces listed. I had to see more, and God willing, I someday will. As luck would have it, an ice storm hit New Mexico the day after we arrived, glazing the highways, and New Mexico was not prepared for it. By Midwestern standards, it barely even qualified as a storm, dropping less than an inch of snow, but that was enough to shut down the highways, and shut down our plans to visit most of the pueblos we had hoped to get to, including the Acoma Sky City. In a perfect world, we would perhaps would have gone in August, when highways were clearer and festivals are numerous, but then again, in a perfect world Dad would be younger, and we wouldn't have to worry about his health.
The images that you are seeing as you enter this article are not ones we took ourselves. They're ones I saw that were typical of the ones that made me want to visit New Mexico, and I can vouch firsthand for the fact that they aren't entirely misleading. One can see the Native American artisans in front of the palace of the goverors in Santa Fe, wearing outfits much like the ones you see in these pictures. But they represent an aspect of the trip we weren't as free to explore as we would have liked. In the case of the Acoma Sky Ciry, that early winter storm had left ice lingering in the shadows along the pathway up the side of the Butte the pueblo is built on, and quite understandably, the locals weren't eager to lead outsiders up what was now a trecherous path up a cliff as tall as a good sized office tower. But, as I've said, the impressions one can get from reading from afar can mislead, and in this case, they did so by ommission. There was far more to see than we imagined, even with our mobility limited.
Some things were disappointing. Santa Fe has become commercialised to the extent of becoming a frequently crass tourist trap, and not really a place that feels very real; where there was once a living community, now there is a swarm of artists pouring in from all over the country. While I won't claim that a factory is a more pleasant sight than an art gallery, it is a piece of real, as opposed to fabricated history, and when one loses all of the dirt, one loses a lot of the character of a real city in the process. The people have been displaced by the tourism. The Turquoise Trail, itself, is an interstate, and the town of Golden along it barely distinguishable, aside from the surrounding scenery, from any of a thousand towns I've seen in the Midwest. But there are also surprises and compensations for travelling off-season.
Finding a bad, or even an uncreatively done meal in Santa Fe would have been a challenge, and they were meals one couldn't have had at home. One may feel a little skeptical about this when one reads some of the menus, which may sound ordinary at first glance. One can certainly find Italian food at home; but can one find it done in the same way? The local piņon nuts one finds topping a first course are not, despite what you might have heard elsewhere, really quite identical to the pine nuts one finds in the store, and the sage scented olive oil served as a sauce, something which would be so bland in other places, becomes delicate and aromatic in the thin, dry air. What has evolved is a unique local variation on what one might take to be ordinary, a regional style of its own, one which is much easier to experience than describe. An attempt to glaze a joint of beef stuffed with cheese with red wine would be an exercise in futility in Chicago, but in Santa Fe somehow it worked. And then there was the more easily recognizably local food one would find in places like La Choza (Spanish for "The Shed"), which was noticably different from the style found even in Albuquerque, with a greater variety of richer dishes.
There was still real history, there, too. To be sure, the best known church in Santa Fe, with its "miraculous" (and quite gracefully beautiful) spiral staircase up to what was the choir loft is no longer a church. The sisters had to abandon it, and it is now a museum, as is the very old mission church down the street. But they're still there, well preserved and lovely to behold, and one has to be impressed by the sight of a church that was already standing when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, even if one did have to pay $2 to get in and masses are no longer being held.
I wonder if those travelling during the usual season would have been able to see the way in which the snow covered hills along the way to Santa Fe would seem to glow in the twilight. I wonder if they could have seen the still green Sandia Mountains set as well, or even in much greater comfort. As cold as the scenery you see at Sandia Crest may appear in those photos, remember that the air at that point is less than 2/3 as thick as it is at sea level, and a lot drier. 18 degrees there felt warmer than 43 degrees did back in Chicago, when we got back. Of course, 18 degrees is still 18 degrees as far as an inanimate object like a camera is concerned, which is why one sees some of the slight blurring one does in some of the later photos from that trip - our camera froze shut, and we had to make do with a few one-shots. (Keeping it inside our coats when it was not in use was not good enough). But, we were doing fine.
Certainly, the icy roads didn't keep us from visiting Cerrillos, a town which may look a little familiar to you because it has been seen in a number of Westerns. Aside from the inevitable reminders of the 21st century (like the cars), it still looks that way, too, and being the only person with a camera walking those streets made it feel a little more like the place it was. The wildlife seemed to be more active in Bandelier State Park because, I suppose, this wasn't really Winter, yet (we left in November), but later autumn, and there was food to be gathered and *ahem* baby mule deer to be made, as overly aggressive photographers might soon find. The animals were less likely to hide in the bushes, and the drop off of the flow through the mountain streams that the drought had caused left me free to walk up a dry creek bed and get a look at a pocket of the forest one usually couldn't get to, located in a tiny oasis of greenery almost completely boxed in by the rock walls of the canyon. Yes, I know one is not supposed to go off-trail, but this hike was done purely on sand and rocks - no damage done, and I got to see a place where one can seldom get to, at least not without getting one's feet seriously wet.
This page is still very much under construction. More later.
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